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Don't Wait to Determine Your Legacy: 4 Steps to Start Today

To maximize your startup's social impact, make sure it has a philanthropic vision from the start.
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What do you want to be remembered for? The "legacy" question often arises at this particular time of year as we remember the great names -- entertainment (Prince), science (game theorist Thomas Schnelling), sports (Muhammed Ali) and politics (John Glenn), who passed away in 2016.

And then there are the two big names added just last week: Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

But, for those of us still living, how do we handle the legacy question?

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Dr. Priscilla Chan answered the legacy question with a pledge this year to celebrate their daughter's birth. Saying they wanted to "advance human potential and promote equality for all children," the couple announced that they would donate 99 percent of their Facebook stock, currently valued at $45 billion, to charity. 

Related: 9 Things Baby Zuckerberg Should Know About Her Famous Parents

Of course, Facebook is hardly a startup, and if you're leading one, legacy might be the last thing on your mind. After all, there are sales to be made, markets to be won and teams to be built, right? And you may still be young, and vital.

But, by sowing the seeds of legacy now, you're not only building a better world, you're also catalyzing business growth. In a Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR study last year, 84 percent of global consumers surveyed said they seek out socially responsible products "whenever possible."

So, it pays to plan your social impact. Since Zuckerberg and Chan announced their pledge, in fact, Facebook's stock price has risen more than 18 percent.

What makes a legacy?

A legacy is not a quantifiable substance. Building one that lasts doesn't involve following any single path or making a particular-sized pledge. But there are elements shared by every successful business leader who's left a legacy.

One of those elements is a unique perspective. Gesche Haas, founder of Trailblazer Ventures, began the social network Dreamers/Doers out of her own need. Inspired by experiences she had had, Haas is building a community of women with the goal of supporting one another and maximizing their collective impact. 

But perspective is nothing without a plan to implement your vision. So, apply a business mindset to your legacy. You wouldn't copy someone else's business with your company, so why would you do such a thing with your philanthropy? Find a neglected niche. Then, be realistic and give strategically.

Related: 3 Ways Your Social Business Will Be Better Than a Charity

A lasting legacy also requires flexibility. While sticking to your social vision guides growth and builds company culture, it's also important to shift in sync with the world. A high-impact donation today might not be as meaningful in five years, which is why Founders Pledge allows those pledging to change charitable priorities right up until their exit.

I began my mission to promote social entrepreneurship by supporting businesses already in the space. I quickly realized, though, that I could reverse-engineer the process to do more good. Now, we partner with successful entrepreneurs to promote charitable giving and help them embed "giving back" into their work.

Plan your legacy with purpose.

Legacies aren't accidents. If your startup is to maximize its social impact, attract visionary employees and benefit from consumers' penchant for socially responsible products, it needs a philanthropic vision from the start:

1. Be a problem solver. Architect your legacy with an entrepreneurial spirit. Identify a societal problem that's bigger than the current philanthropic and government actors working to solve it, and add your voice to that chorus.

For example, Jeremy Coller, a U.K.-based private equity expert, set a clear, ambitious goal for his legacy: End factory farming within four decades. Although Coller is hardly the only philanthropist focused on animal rights, he's in a unique position to solve the problem. By spotlighting the risks of factory farm investments, Coller convinces investors to redirect funds to ethical alternatives.

2. Align your company with your vision. Planning to solve a problem is important, but if employees and company stakeholders aren't aware of your vision, they can't help you achieve it. Communicate your philanthropic goal early and often to enable the team to pitch in.

Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard doesn't just give grants to organizations that are helping to save the planet; he's made philanthropy an integral part of the company. Patagonia's website contains page after page of stories spotlighting sustainability projects and policy initiatives, and its employees have donated more than 1,700 hours of labor cleaning beaches, planting trees, fighting invasive species and more.

3. Make concrete but agile plans. Your vision should be strong, but if it's immutable, it'll snap when business winds blow. Stay open to new ideas, and keep your vision flexible. Give stakeholders short-, medium- and long-term business plans, but be clear that those plans are subject to change.

When it comes to dynamic giving, Bill Gates sits atop the totem pole. The Microsoft giant, along with his wife, Melinda, has donated $27 billion to charity and created massive social change through their foundation. Whether solving educational crises, helping to alleviate urban poverty or providing emergency relief, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has proven itself capable of tackling emerging challenges wherever they crop up.

Related: 5 Life Lessons From Bill Gates, One of the Most Influential Philanthropists on Earth

4. Use business expertise to create social success. Business and philanthropy shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Use your business acumen to make the most of your philanthropic endeavors. 

Nielsen, for instance, leverages its data for good through the Nielsen Cares initiative. For the past four years, Nielsen has given at least $10 million per year in pro bono and in-kind contributions. By donating proprietary data and leveraging employees' expertise, Nielsen has collaborated with Feeding America to measure the food insecurity of U.S. counties. It's also helped the Special Olympics measure the economic power of households whose members have intellectual disabilities.

Do you want your startup to be remembered for its inventive spirit? For its strides in alleviating world hunger? For how it helped fight climate change? Think carefully about the impact you want to make. Then, plan appropriately and give generously. When it comes time to look back at your legacy, you'll be glad you did.

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